Our system rests squarely on the notion that government officials — whether elected or appointed — need to be accountable to the people they govern. They are responsible for their behavior, their decisions, and the policies they support. They are answerable for their use — and misuse — of the funds and resources they’re given.
They are — or ought to be — just as accountable for the remedies they fail to pursue as for the actions they do take. Accountability safeguards our Constitution, our laws, and our democracy.
Which is why the weakening of accountability in our system over the past few decades ought to worry all Americans. It has become very difficult, for instance, to question a president — a problem that preceded the current occupant of the White House. Presidential press conferences, which once were free-wheeling affairs at which presidents faced sustained questioning from reporters well-versed in their policies, are barely held these days. They are passing from view — and President Trump’s habit of using Twitter to communicate over the heads of people who ask hard questions may well set the course for the future.
In fact, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels have become quite skilled at avoiding accountability. During my years in Congress, I considered it a key task to find out who was responsible for particular decisions — whether the administration was Republican or Democrat. It was difficult then, and has become more so with time.
Meanwhile, it has been reassuring over the past two years to see several national news outlets step up their scrutiny of public officials in Washington, but it remains true that overall there is less investigative journalism than there once was.
Which is a problem because it’s simply human nature to want to avoid being held responsible. If policies are going well and are well received in the polls and by the public, of course, officials fight to take their place in line and garner the credit. If something goes wrong, they fight to get out of the line.
In our system, every official has to answer to some other official. This is a reassuring quality in a governmental structure — but only if officials actually exercise their responsibilities. That’s why the media are so important as a backstop.
Which raises another issue. A lot of players ought to be exercising oversight: members of Congress, the government’s inspectors general, the media — we even have an entire agency, the Government Accountability Office, dedicated to the task. But for them to do their work, the system also needs transparency. Almost every day you see signs of officials hiding what they do from the public — often without real merit.
I’ve always been quite skeptical of the argument that we ought not let this or that piece of information become public. National security is often invoked, or trade secrets, or some other rationale for drawing a veil over the government’s activities. Even when citizens or reporters file Freedom of Information requests, these can be ignored, or turned down.
The problem with this, of course, is that it’s anti-democratic. How are we supposed to make reasoned decisions about who and what we want to see in our government if we don’t know what’s going on and who’s responsible for it?
Perhaps the most famous hallmark of Harry Truman’s tenure as president was the motto he placed on his desk: “The buck stops here.” There’s a reason why it’s so famous, and why people still consider it a standard they wish other politicians would set for themselves.
Americans want officials who will step up and take responsibility for their decisions. They want political leaders who will hold themselves accountable to the public. And they want to see public officials exercise the responsibility handed them by the Constitution to hold others accountable. That the House is moving to do so is not a detour from governing; it’s the essence of good government.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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